I’ll start with an admission: The title of this blog entry isn’t really fair to Brian McLaren. (Incidentally, for more posters like the one at the top of this blog, check them out here).
I say the title’s not fair – that is, if taken a certain way – because as the poster illustrates, there are those who don’t think that McLaren’s approach in his book A Generous Orthodoxy is particularly generous towards those with whom he disagrees, nor do they believe he is particularly orthodox. He’s made his name as one of the kingpins of “emergent” Christianity. I have not read any books or articles by McLaren, so I can’t say for myself whether or not these assessments are correct, yet the blog title could easily give the impression that I have read the book and agree with these negative assessments. So let me be clear: The only reason that I included the word “genuine” here is to say: “Look, if you don’t think McLaren’s book is generous or orthodox, please set that aside because what I’m about to say has nothing to do with that book as I haven’t read it. Even if you think the generous orthodoxy in that book isn’t genuine, hopefully you might still think that my generous orthodoxy is genuine.” OK? Now, down to business.
I’m genuinely orthodox as far as the Christian faith goes, and I’m also an evangelical Protestant of sorts. I embrace the classic doctrines of the Christian faith: The Trinity, the virgin birth of Jesus, the saving death and the bodily resurrection of Jesus, the inspiration of Scripture, the return of Jesus and the resurrection of the dead and so on. Those are summed up in the Nicene Creed (and if you didn’t realise that the inspiration of Scripture was covered there, look at what the Creed says about the Holy Spirit when it adds “He has spoken through the prophets”).
As far as Protestantism goes, I’m fairly theologically conservative there too. I’m most comfortable with Calvinism / Augustinianism as an understanding of the biblical teaching on salvation. However, I’m kindly disposed to Molinism (although I do not currently believe that it is correct). When it comes to the “Five Solas” of Protestant theology: sola fide, sola gratia, sola Christus, sola scriptura and sola Deo gloria, I affirm them.
I hold to what I call orthodoxy because I affirm these things to be true. Now, some of these things aren’t even necessary for orthodoxy. The five solas are not held by Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox Christians, for example, yet they still hold to what I see as the minimal standards of orthodoxy. When I say that I affirm a “generous” orthodoxy, I do not mean that I’m flexible on whether or not I think these things are correct. If someone denies the Trinity, they’re objectively, factually mistaken. They are wrong, we are right. Ditto for the resurrection of Jesus and the rest of them. Bear this in mind as you read on.
When I qualify my view by calling it “generous” (as opposed to some views that I think are not generous), I’m not talking about my commitment to those beliefs, but rather to my stance towards those who do not hold those beliefs. Here’s a slogan that I would be happy for people to associate with me: Orthodoxy is not about certainty, it’s about safety. Remember, I’m not talking about the beliefs maintained by Christian orthodoxy, I’m talking about orthodoxy’s stance towards those who don’t affirm those beliefs. To show you what I mean, here’s an illustration of what I think counts as ungenerous orthodoxy. This example is an old and highly revered creed, the Athanasian Creed. I’ve highlighted the lines that I want to draw attention to:
Whosoever will be saved, before all things it is necessary that he hold the catholic faith; Which faith except every one do keep whole and undefiled, without doubt he shall perish everlastingly.
And the catholic faith is this: That we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity; Neither confounding the persons nor dividing the substance.
For there is one person of the Father, another of the Son, and another of the Holy Spirit.
But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit is all one, the glory equal, the majesty coeternal.
Such as the Father is, such is the Son, and such is the Holy Spirit.
The Father uncreated, the Son uncreated, and the Holy Spirit uncreated. The Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible, and the Holy Spirit incomprehensible.
The Father eternal, the Son eternal, and the Holy Spirit eternal. And yet they are not three eternals but one eternal.
As also there are not three uncreated nor three incomprehensible, but one uncreated and one incomprehensible.
So likewise the Father is almighty, the Son almighty, and the Holy Spirit almighty. And yet they are not three almighties, but one almighty.
So the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God; And yet they are not three Gods, but one God.
So likewise the Father is Lord, the Son Lord, and the Holy Spirit Lord; And yet they are not three Lords but one Lord.
For like as we are compelled by the Christian verity to acknowledge every Person by himself to be God and Lord;
So are we forbidden by the catholic religion to say; There are three Gods or three Lords.
The Father is made of none, neither created nor begotten. The Son is of the Father alone; not made nor created, but begotten. The Holy Spirit is of the Father and of the Son; neither made, nor created, nor begotten, but proceeding. So there is one Father, not three Fathers; one Son, not three Sons; one Holy Spirit, not three Holy Spirits.
And in this Trinity none is afore or after another; none is greater or less than another. But the whole three persons are coeternal, and coequal. So that in all things, as aforesaid, the Unity in Trinity and the Trinity in Unity is to be worshipped.
He therefore that will be saved must thus think of the Trinity.
Furthermore it is necessary to everlasting salvation that he also believe rightly the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ.
For the right faith is that we believe and confess that our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is God and man.
God of the substance of the Father, begotten before the worlds; and man of substance of His mother, born in the world.
Perfect God and perfect man, of a reasonable soul and human flesh subsisting.
Equal to the Father as touching His Godhead, and inferior to the Father as touching His manhood.
Who, although He is God and man, yet He is not two, but one Christ.
One, not by conversion of the Godhead into flesh, but by taking of that manhood into God.
One altogether, not by confusion of substance, but by unity of person.
For as the reasonable soul and flesh is one man, so God and man is one Christ; Who suffered for our salvation, descended into hell, rose again the third day from the dead;
He ascended into heaven, He sits on the right hand of the Father, God, Almighty;
From thence He shall come to judge the quick and the dead.
At whose coming all men shall rise again with their bodies;
and shall give account of their own works.
And they that have done good shall go into life everlasting and they that have done evil into everlasting fire.
This is the catholic faith, which except a man believe faithfully he cannot be saved.
Ponder this for a moment. Specifically, ponder the level of certainty with which this statement of faith appears to speak about those who do not affirm every part of it. Did you know that unless you positively affirm that Jesus is one person “not by conversion of the Godhead into flesh, but by taking of that manhood into God,” you “cannot be saved” and you will “without doubt perish everlastingly”?
Really? Without any doubt at all? Unless they believe exactly this?
This is bombastic nonsense. Call me utterly stark raving mad, but I think that if a person believes the rest of the creed but has doubts about this brief clause, it’s slightly over the top to say that there’s no doubt at all that this person is going to hell, even if this part of the creed is correct in what it claims about Jesus. Call me nuts, but I think that’s claiming just a tad more knowledge than God has given us.
Or take the doctrine of justification by faith, a doctrine accepted by Protestants and rejected by Catholics. A fellow Protestant once tried to tell me that this was a really important doctrine. I agreed. He further tried to tell me that Catholics are going to hell because they don’t affirm this doctrine. What he evidently didn’t see is that he was contradicting himself. I said to him: When you say that we are justified before God by faith, what is faith? What are we placing faith in?” “Jesus” was the answer. And here was the clincher: “And do Catholics have faith in Jesus? You cant have it both ways. You can’t say that we’re justified by faith, and then say that we’re justified by believing that we’re justified by faith. Choose, but it can’t be both.” If we’re justified by faith in Christ, then it’s perfectly plausible to think that there are people who are justified by their faith in Christ who don’t realise that this is how we are justified.
But it gets worse: What if someone didn’t believe something that was a real doozy, like the Trinity? Can they be saved? My answer…. get ready…. is yes.
Can a person who doesn’t believe in the Trinity be saved? Sure. Can a person who drives erratically at 200 kilometres per hour with no seatbelt arrive at their destination intact? Yep. Can a person who smokes heavily live to an old age? You bet. Should they do that? No, of course not, because it’s not safe.
I’d like to think that the “net” of salvation is cast very wide indeed, and that those who sincerely trust in Christ, who are accepted and saved by God, but who hold to all kinds of mistaken ways of thinking about God, will number in the multi-millions beyond what many sincere Christians think. But I can’t say for sure.
Can a Christadelphian be saved? Sure? Might a full preterist be saved? Yes. What about a Mormon? Yep. Could a person walking through a minefield survive? Indeed! But please, don’t. Those points of view contain things that I regard as incompatible with Christianity. And yet they also contain many things that are very compatible with Christianity, and a person in one of those contexts certainly might come to genuinely trust in Christ and have a saving relationship with God. But there are much safer places to look for that.
Theologically, yes I’m orthodox. But I’m generous. If you approach me as a sincere believer who trusts in Christ alone, I’ll receive you as one. Now I say this within some limits. If you deny pretty much everything that orthodoxy has to say: That Jesus is the son of God, that there’s any life after death, or something crazy like that, then there’s little point in even pretending to identify with Christianity. I’m talking about those who do actually have a claim to the name “Christian,” but who differ from me in fundamental ways. But you’ll have to be ready for a little brotherly concern. If I think you’re unsafe or at risk, I’ll tell you so. Similarly, if I were the pastor of a church and you wanted the chance to preach, I’d have to decline. But I wouldn’t be in a position to say that I know that I won’t see you on the other side. You wouldn’t, for example, choose a mentally “at risk” person to mentor mental patients, right? (OK, the analogy has it limits, but you get the point!)
So there you go. Orthodoxy is about safety, not certainty, and it doesn’t strip us of the duty to be generous.